Lacking the gratuitous and over-the-top jokiness that has characterized some of this season, the House super-duper post-Super Bowl episode had a compelling and emotional drama; a terrific side story; and a resolution to the games that have been played between House and his fledgling fellows since episode two. What a perfect episode to place in that coveted time slot. And what a joy that so many people tuned in to see my favorite show at its very best. According to FOX, “Frozen” "…earned the series its highest ratings ever, and was the highest rated scripted program on any network in two years.”
Mira Sorvino (read my interview with Ms. Sorvino) guests as Cate Milton, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at Princeton Plainsboro, currently on leave, serving as staff doc at an Antarctic research station. She comes onto House's service via web-cam, complaining of severe kidney pain.
Despite House’s expected sarcasm regarding psychiatrists, his admiration of, and growing respect for, Cate are apparent from their first scene. She disarms him almost immediately, even as he baits her in his usual manner, only to be cut off (literally) as she reminds him that she is the one in control. It is her strength and bravery despite her illness that intrigue and impress him.
“Since when do you let a patient in on a differential?” Foreman asks, stunned at House's acquiescence.
“Since the doctor and patient are one and the same.” House, no longer dismissive of her, realizes that unless he treats her as an equal, he will get nowhere.
The relationship between House and Cate quickly becomes one of equals. He insists to Foreman that they be forthright with her when cancer becomes the most likely diagnosis. House dismisses Foreman’s argument for withholding this information, respecting Cate’s right to stay in the differential loop. When House discloses that she needs to perform a full-body X-ray series, he appreciates her stoicism as she sets aside her emotions to perform the task. “Good for you,” he quietly reflects.
House consults with Wilson as he evaluates the X-ray films for signs of cancer. As House complains about Cate, Wilson deduces that House actually “likes” her, goading him about it. It’s a great and playful scene between Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard. But it also draws an interesting (to me, anyway) distinction between the two doctors’ personalities. Wilson insists that they’ve hit a dead end, after they discover a deep-lying enlarged lymph node. It’s too deep to biopsy without a full surgical team, he argues. House, on the other hand, evaluates the problem idealistically, assuming that they will find a way, focusing on which stains they will be able to improvise after they have the sample. It’s the sort of unique optimism that is very characteristic of the pessimistic House. House contends they simply need to find a node closer to the surface, despite the fact that Wilson sees no X-ray evidence of any enlarged superficial nodes. House needs to examine the patient!
As House sits comfortably on his apartment sofa in front of the web-cam, Jack Daniels nearby, fireplace roaring in the background, he informs Cate that she will need to strip for his exam. Because he can’t really touch her, he will have to rely on her self-exam and his own very sharp observational skills. Cate refuses to strip in front of House in his apartment.
“Show me your apartment,” she insists as a quid pro quo for undressing. House’s apartment is a glimpse into his heart and soul — beyond his affected boorishness. “No pictures of family or friends,” she observes of the lonely and isolated House. But his flat also reveals a man who likes books, antiques, artwork, and music. This is a serious and studious side of House that almost no one gets to know — a personality he keeps well hidden.
Reluctantly, House agrees. “You’d rather show me your soul than your leg,” she baits. Everything that this battered and tormented man has gone through is symbolized by the long disfiguring scar on his right thigh, his constant reminder of all of his wounds — internal and external.
Pushing back, he sneers, knowing full well what comes next. “Got me all figured out. Gonna try to fix me now?”
But instead, she disarms him. “Who said you needed fixing?”
House guides her hand from 9,000 miles away, distracting her by keeping the focus on his typically inappropriate remarks. Yes, of course he’s enjoying himself, and part of it is House’s inept way of connecting with women. But once they identify an enlarged lymph node, their banter is immediately forgotten. Both of them understand the gravity of what happens next. “You’re doing a biopsy,” he intones gravely, roaring fire and sexual innuendos suddenly evaporating into the ether of cyberspace.
Now it is Wilson's turn to direct Cate as she prepares to biopsy the lymph node. House sits nearby, clearly distressed about the difficult and painful procedure that she must perform on herself. He shocks Wilson by urging her on, calling her first name, then asking her (almost as if he’s metaphorically holding her hand) if she’s “okay” when she finishes the procedure, exhausted.
Of course, Wilson must badger House about “caring for her.” He pushes hard, maybe even knowing that by doing so he’s pushing the emotionally fragile House back into his shell. It leads me to wonder whether Wilson actually wants House to come to terms with himself. If he did, Wilson would understand these seeds of humanity for what they are and leave them alone; instead he suffocates them. (Although despite this, I really did like the House/Wilson dynamic in this episode– and House certainly gets his zings in as well.)
Cate is curious about their unlikely relationship. Wilson, she has learned, is the guy with the “perfect score: responsible, nice, human.” House is “brilliant, straightforward and an ass.” Cate’s suggests that Wilson may not be quite as nice as he seems. “Indiscriminate niceness is overrated,” she challenges.
“No wonder he likes you,” responds Wilson as he examines the results of the biopsy with her. Wilson understands the attraction. She is strong, brilliant, and wise. And (fortunately) she does not have cancer. But she is now having acute pain on the other side.
Knowing that it’s not cancer, and back in his apartment, House visits with Cate. Even though she may not even see it, House has paid her the rarest of compliments — by trusting her enough to see his leg. Maybe he’s doing it to goad her; maybe to prove to her that she was wrong and he's not self-conscious about his scar. Whatever his reason, she does not attempt to psychoanalyze it; she appears to not even react. (But we do see her looking at his leg as she switches off the camera.)
Autoimmune disease is the latest theory. Anti-inflammatory meds are out of the question, so Foreman comes up with an innovative but very risky idea, one to which House is extremely and uncharacteristically opposed: send her outdoors in -70 degree temperatures for five minutes (in eight, argues House, a healthy person would be dead). Although it is unlike House to argue against a procedure simply because it is risky, we as viewers know House’s relationship with ice. His father used ice baths as punishment when he was a boy. I don’t know if the writers intentionally made this connection or not. But it would explain why House, growing more attached to Cate, would avoid inflicting that sort of torture on her — therapeutic or not.
But before she can test Foreman’s theory, Cate collapses into a coma. They need to diagnose the cause and need to call on her mechanic, Sean, to continue running the tests.
When asked to tap Cate’s bladder to taste her urine, his reaction suggests to the hyper-observant House that Sean is in love with her. In House’s view, that love should trump everything when her life is on the line, no matter how distasteful the task. (Is this how House was finally able to come to terms with Stacy’s sacrifice of their relationship? Hmmm…) This is House the romantic — the disillusioned idealist when his cynicism button is muted.
To relieve the pressure that has now built up in Cate’s skull, Sean must drill into her or she will die. Sean is not okay with this (neither would I, I’d be freaked). Viscerally connecting with Sean, both caring about Cate’s well being, House practically pleads with him as he shrinks from doing the risky procedure. “I am not going to let you hurt her,” House assures him. “Please, please. This is her only chance.” An astonished Foreman watches intently, as House emotionally pleads with Sean, mystified at this version of House, unguarded — someone who Foreman has never before seen. Believe me, Foreman can do a whole lot worse than to “become like House,” something that he abhorred so much last season, he resigned rather than risk it. Seeing the power of Sean's love, House backs away, as Cate thanks him, telling her that it was Sean that saved her life. Phew.
The intensity of the episode was broken by the the dual side plots of House's quest for cable TV and the mystery of Wilson's new girlfriend. The cable games served also as a reminder that as emotionally connected as he was to Cate, House is, fundamentally, House. And House can be an ass. Even when (and sometimes because) he has a point.
House said it at the beginning of the episode, “As far as you know it’s more than a silly battle over cable.” And it was. I said in my review of “It’s a Wonderful Lie” that House craves a team that will stand up to him, challenge him, keep him from drowning in the deep end of diagnosis. So he pushed until someone snapped, standing up and telling him “No!” But only House would try to couple that with a pathetic attempt to get cable television!
FOX will re-broadcast “Frozen” on Friday, February 15.